On Therapeutic Writing, and Putting Hexakaidekaphobia in Remission

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When my mother died, last November 16, I wrote an obituary for her, which I was then asked (unexpectedly) to read at her funeral, as one of two eulogies. This was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but writing it did help me (somewhat) with the immediate problem I was having dealing with grief.

After the funeral, I felt numb much of the time, for months, until May 16 arrived — exactly six months after she died — at which point my tightly-controlled emotional state shattered, leaving me in worse shape (in some ways) than I was on, say, November 17 of last year. This was unexpected, and caused significant problems, including the development of monthly hexakaidekaphobia, a morbid dread and fear of the 16th day of every month. (The word is a modification of “triskaidekaphobia,” an irrational fear of the number thirteen).

June 16 was worse than May 16 — absolutely full of PTSD attacks. (I’ve had PTSD for most of my life; my mother’s death made it worse.) Fortunately, I don’t try to hide mental health problems, as I once did — I try to find the help I need, from physicians, to deal with such problems, and, when I find things that help me, I write about them. I also have long used recreational mathematics to help me feel better when depressed.

It was in this context that mid-July arrived. I went to sleep on July 15th with the knowledge that it was extremely important for me to find better coping mechanisms before the start of school in August. When I woke up on July 16, which could have been another horrific day of severe depression, anxiety, and other problems, I did not feel those negative emotions. This does not mean I had “gotten over” the facts that my mother did die, and that I miss her terribly. However, it did mean I was experiencing grief differently: I was feeling grief, rather than letting feelings of grief control me — and there is a huge difference between the two.

That morning, July 16, I knew what I needed to do as soon as I woke up: I needed to write. For me, that generally means blogging, and that’s what happened. This “therapeutic writing,” as I call it, was helpful enough on July 16 that I continued it the next day. When I next spoke to my doctors, I told them I was doing this, and why, and they agreed that such writing (like the “mathematical therapy” I have done for years) was an excellent, helpful activity. (This “check with professionals” step is essential, and I do not recommend attempting mental health therapy without the help of at least one licensed, qualified psychiatrist, and/or other type of therapist, such as a clinical psychologist.)

Of course, I could do this therapeutic writing in a spiral notebook, and keep it private; no writing has to go on the Internet. Why, then, do I choose to post such material where anyone can see it? I first explained why I blog about mental health issues in this post, but the short version is this: I hope that my openness on this subject can help reduce the social stigma which, unfortunately, still surrounds topics related mental health. This stigma is harmful because it keeps millions of people from seeking the professional help they need. I have also found it a personally liberating experience to come out of the “closet” on such issues, for, as with other metaphorical “closets,” it is the truth that closets are not good places for people to live their lives.

School starts on August 15 — only four days from now — and I’m going to do everything I can to make that day, the next day (the formerly-dreaded 16th of the month), and the rest of the days in the school year as good as they can possibly be for my students, as well as myself. I could tell I was on the right track when I decided to write about monthly hexakaidekaphobia early this morning, but in the past tense. Before I started writing, I “warmed up” by constructing the geometric art at the top of this post, which, if you examine carefully, you will see is based on — what else? — the number sixteen. In my case, at least, mathematical therapy and therapeutic writing go hand-in-hand, and this is what I am doing to try to leave my monthly hexakaidecaphobia in the past, where it belongs.

I still miss my mother. She was once, as I am, a science teacher, and was also involved in education in many other ways. She would want me to have good school days on August 16th, September 16th, and so on, as well as the days in-between — and, to properly honor her memory, and give my students the education they deserve, I am determined to do my best to do exactly that.

Phobias? What phobias?

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

It just occurred to me that there are an absurd number of common phobias, such as claustrophobia or acrophobia, for which I have the polar opposite — an unusual attraction to the commonly-feared thing or situation. (Since I am no stranger to anxiety, so this is rather odd.) Claustrophobics fear enclosed spaces, while those with acrophobia fear heights. If someone told me that a sensory deprivation tank was available for my use, atop the nearest mountain, I’d drive straight there, climb the mountain, get in the tank, and seal myself in for hours, for two reasons: I love being in enclosed spaces, and also absolutely love heights. Combining the two would be awesome!

There is a proper word-ending for the opposite of a phobia, of course: “-philia.” Unfortunately, though, use of words which end with -philia is problematic, due to the fact that the most often-used words with this ending refer to criminal acts. There’s nothing wrong with the words “claustrophilia,” nor “acrophilia,” to a linguistic purist. To a pragmatist, though — which I am — the undesirable effect of reminding the reader of such horrors as pedophilia must be taken into account. For this reason, I find it preferable to state that I have the opposite of both claustrophobia, and acrophobia.

In alphabetical order, then, here are some common phobias for which I have the polar opposite:

  • Acrophobia, fear of heights — See first paragraph, above.
  • Aerophobia, fear of flying — Just being a passenger on an airplane is thrilling, especially at take-off. Once, at about age twelve, I actually got to take the controls of a small plane for a little while, and that will remain one of the peak experiences of my life.
  • Ailurophobia, fear of cats — We have cats, and I’ve had cats all my life. I admire their “cattitudes,” for one thing; they are somewhat like my own.
  • Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders — I try my best to protect every spider I see, wear a spider necklace, have a spider tattoo, and have spider-decorations in my classroom year-round, just because I like spiders that much.
  • Atychiphobia, fear of failure — If I had this, I would never begin work on any challenging math problem, and . . . well, what would be the point of existing like that?
  • Autophobia, fear of being alone — The fact that I traveled over 11,000 km, alone, in my late teens, proves I don’t have this problem.
  • Barophobia, fear of gravity — A bad idea for anyone with mass! If I had it, I wouldn’t be writing this, for I’d be too busy freaking out. All. The. Time.
  • Bibliophobia, fear of books — Yeah, well, I can’t even narrow down my favorite-author list to fewer than four, as seen here.
  • Claustrophobia, fear of enclosed spaces — See first paragraph, above.
  • Cyberphobia, fear of computers — Wow, that would make it difficult to maintain a blog!
  • Glossophobia, fear of speaking in public — As a teacher, I actually get paid to run my mouth, so this one is . . . out!
  • Gynophobia, fear of women — They may scare a lot of lawmakers, judging from the political “war against women” in America, but I’ve always preferred the company of women to that of men (sorry, guys).
  • Islamophobia, fear/hatred of Muslims and Islam — I’ve blogged about this; you can find those posts here.
  • Melanophobia, fear of the color black — My favorite color!
  • Negrophobia, fear of Black people — It’s a common affliction where I live, this being the American South, but I couldn’t do my job if I had this problem, for a majority of my students are Black. I can’t think of any reason why a person’s albedo, high or low, should be a problem for me. I’m not allergic to melanin, after all, and have viewed racism as evil since I first became aware of it, as a child.
  • Nyctophobia, fear of darkness and night — If I could get away with it, I would be completely nocturnal.
  • Ombrophobia, fear of rain — I don’t even own an umbrella.
  • Ophidiophobia, fear of snakes — Have you ever had a twenty-minute stand-off with a copperhead? I have. I was probably fifteen or so at the time. My reasoning: running toward or away from the snake might be dangerous, and walking away wasn’t an option, since I was standing on a rock in the middle of a river, with the snake on the next rock — so I held my ground, and simply stayed on “my” rock. The snake did the same on his rock, for about twenty minutes, and then it jumped into a river and swam away, ending the standoff. This wouldn’t have been possible with ophidiophobia.
  • Triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number thirteen — Why would anyone fear a number, especially one of the smaller primes? Wouldn’t that mean not being able to count more than a dozen things at once? There’s plenty of evidence on this blog that numbers don’t scare me.

The next time anxiety is a problem for me, I’ll try to remember to think about this list of anxiety-problems I don’t have, but which do affect many other people. I could certainly have it worse when it comes to anxiety, and it harms nothing to keep that in mind. In fact, it might even help.

On Mental Health: My Reasons for Letting the Sunshine In

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There are quite a few posts on this blog on the subject of mental health, and they can be easily found by simply looking at that category, in the pull-down menu on the right side of your screen. In these posts, I have been quite candid about such things as my own panic disorder, PTSD, and Asperger’s Syndrome.

What I have not done, until now, is explain my reasons for my openness on this subject.

First and foremost, I am trying to do what I can to remove the stigma which surrounds the entire subject of mental illness. This stigma is harmful, for it keeps millions of people who need help from mental health professionals from seeking it, out of fear of being labeled and/or ostracized — or worse. I learned this the hard way:  by experiencing it. I had my first panic attack at age 16. Like most panic attacks, this one lasted perhaps twenty minutes, or less. Few people have panic attacks that last longer than that — unless they fail to seek treatment, and the panic attacks continue to happen, which is what happened to me.

Over time, panic disorder tends to become worse, if not treated. The fear of the panic attacks themselves becomes an issue, for those who have them frequently, and such fear can lead to people avoiding situations where they fear a panic attack would be particularly embarrassing, and/or debilitating — somewhere like, for example, the middle of a Walmart, or their church, or their workplace. In some cases, untreated panic disorder leads to full-blown agoraphobia, with some people actually reaching the point where they simply do not leave their homes at all — until they die.

In my case, I avoided treatment for my own panic disorder (or any other mental health problem) for about a decade, specifically because of my fear of the stigma of mental illness. I tried to keep my panic attacks a secret, but, of course, that did not stop them. They grew in intensity, and the duration of the attacks increased as well. A ten-hour panic attack — something which is incredibly rare — is what finally drove me to get over my fear of this stigma, and make an appointment with the man who is still my psychiatrist.

In the years that followed, I grew more and more disturbed by the existence of this stigma, and finally made a decision:  I would do whatever I could to neutralize it, for the benefit of others. I do not wish anyone to suffer the effects of deliberately delaying needed medical treatment. After much thinking, I eventually figured out one thing I can do, toward this end: be open about such matters, simply to help others know that mental illness can, with appropriate help, become transformed into mental health. In other words, as with many other illnesses, those with mental health problems can, and do, get better. This is why I have chosen the category-name “mental health” for these posts, rather than “mental illness.”

Of the particular struggles I have which involve issues of mental health, PTSD is the most difficult to treat . . . but I work hard, with the help of my doctor, to get better. What’s more, it is working, although I cannot claim this work is complete. I want everyone to know that getting better is a goal which is both realistic, and achievable.

With Asperger’s, my motivation for openness is somewhat different, for this condition is not actually a mental illness at all, as evidenced by the fact that it was recently “de-listed” from the latest version of the DSM (Diagnotic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Asperger’s Syndrome is simply a difference in the way some people think, as opposed to an actual disease. Some “Aspies” (our culture’s own nickname for ourselves), however, do suffer greatly, because of the difficulties involved in interacting socially with others, especially non-Aspies. I share what I have figured out, on this subject, with two goals in mind: (1) helping my fellow Aspies who struggle, and sometimes suffer, because of these differences, in any way I can, and (2) helping non-Aspies understand us better, so that these difficulties in interaction between Aspies and non-Aspies can become less of a problem — for everyone.

Finally, it simply feels good to no longer be trapped, in a metaphorical closet, regarding these things which are, after all, part of my life. As the saying goes, borrowed from the gay rights activists who invented it, “closets are for clothes, not for people.”

I much prefer letting the sunshine in.

What Is Wrong (and Right) with Me?

Wrong (i.e., problems):

  • Panic disorder, which initially presented with agoraphobia
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • An absurd amount of work-related stress, aggravating both of these conditions

Right (I’m glad I have these going for me):

  • Asperger’s (similar to high-functioning autism)
  • Ongoing professional treatment for the three problems listed above

Without Asperger’s (we call ourselves “Aspies”), which can help me shut down emotions when I need to, and look at things from a logical, problem-solving perspective, thinking out ways to cope with the first three would be virtually impossible. Also, without the professional treatment mentioned above, I’d be in a rubber room, or worse, by now.

These lists are obviously not complete. I’m focusing on things related to mental health, because I want to do everything I can to de-stigmatize mental health problems, and getting diagnosis and treatment for them, for everyone. That’s the purpose of this blog-post.